Upon hearing that Oliver Stone has directed a movie about 9/11, many moviegoers might have uttered an "uh-oh!" Controversy trails Stone the way paparazzi follow Lindsay Lohan. After all, the iconoclastic director couldn't even produce a historical epic about Alexander the Great without causing a brouhaha about its homosexual themes. Word that Stone had helmed "World Trade Center," an unflinching look at the events of that day though the eyes of two police officers, is the kind of news that's chum in the water for the likes of Anne Coulter.
But Stone is set to confound his critics.
The film, which opens Aug. 9, is a tale of survival on a Tuesday that started out so unassumingly, with morning skies so clear you could almost see the moon, and ended in a shrouded haze that still lingers over the nation's consciousness. Stone's tale, however, is surprisingly apolitical. It tells the story of New York Port Authority Sgt. John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and fellow officer Will Jimeno (Michael Peña) and their struggle to stay alive under the rubble of the Twin Towers.
"There's no reason this film couldn't reach an audience in Africa," reasons the director, speaking to reporters in Boston recently. "It could very well be about a tsunami victim or an earthquake in Turkey. It's about survival, the basics of life. It happens to be about these two guys in that event, but it could be about anybody."
The director rolls his eyes when he recalls early speculation that the film would be wrapped in conspiracy theories. But then, the director has seldom shied away from espousing his political views. In the 1986 movie "Salvador," the writer-director dramatized the battle zone that was El Salvador at the outbreak of that Central American country's 12-year civil war in 1980. Later in 1986, Orion Pictures released Stone's semi-autobiographical war drama "Platoon," one of a handful of definitive takes on the folly of the Vietnam War. The film went on to win four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. Then came 1991's "JFK." The director posed a number of scenarios regarding the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, earning eight Oscar nominations (and a reputation for Stone as a wild spinner of conspiracy theories).
Stone has never been shy about taking on America's hot-button topics. "What's happened in the film business is it's become too local, too provincial, and I think we have to make movies about big subjects," he says.
"World Trade Center" may not spark op-ed debates like "Wall Street," "Nixon," "Natural Born Killers," or even "Looking for Fidel" – a recent TV documentary that appeared to cuddle up to Fidel Castro – but the movie manifests Stone's passion for chronicling history.
"I'm drawn to magnetic events, because I'm part of the time I'm in," he says. "In those real events, there is sometimes fascinating resonance, and there is in this, too: You tell the story because – as John [McLoughlin] and Will [Jimeno] would say – you help remember, because people do forget fast these days."
Balancing the dank, physically rigorous story of McLoughlin and Jimeno are the stories of each of their wives as they await news amidst the chaos of the day. What could have turned into rote, movie-of-the-week melodrama becomes a lesson in the craft of storytelling with Stone at the wheel.
"The story of the wives could have been conventional and cliché," he says. "They're played by two great actresses [Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal], and they bring it to a point where I believed those two women stop and accept that their husbands are not going to come back that afternoon.... It was very rough on the wives, like a form of death."
Time will tell whether films like "World Trade Center" and Paul Greengrass's recent "United 93" stand as the kind of iconic films that scholars and historians cite as touchstones, but Stone thinks there is still more to tell.
"This thing's not over," he boldly notes. "The consequences of that day are huge, far worse than that day. I don't think all the cards are on the table, so I don't think I could look at the whole thing yet and understand it."
Stone goes on to mention how the Vietnam War took some seven good movies to spark any kind of productive public discussion, and hopes for the same kind of dialogue in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy.
"It's not a car," he says of his new picture. "You really try to make it last." Warming to his theme, the director says that all of his films try to include heart and soul. "I put a piece of myself in every single one; there's a marker for me, memorials along my path."